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Influencers Transcript: Alexis Ohanian, February 21, 2019

ANDY SERWER: Alexis Ohanian shows that quick success can establish influence. But it takes deep thinking to sustain it. Months after graduating from college, he cofounded the social media site Reddit, an instant hit. It's now one of the most popular destinations on the internet.

By age 23, he was a multi-millionaire. But he didn't stop there. He then cofounded a venture capital firm that finds and develops the Reddits of the next generation. Alexis is here to talk about how to distinguish a good bet from a big flop in the fast-changing tech business.

Hello everyone, I’m Andy Serwer, and welcome to Influencers. And welcome to our guest, Alexis Ohanian. Alexis, it's good to see you.

ALEXIS OHANIAN: Hey, I'm very happy to be here. Thanks.

ANDY SERWER: So you got so many interests, so many things going on. But I want to start off by asking you about maybe what you're most famous for here today. And that's Reddit. And you started Reddit right after you graduated from UVA. What's the story there?

ALEXIS OHANIAN: Yeah. I mean, I was actually going to be a lawyer, believe it or not. I wanted to be an immigration lawyer. And I was in the middle of an LSAT. And I walked out. I walked right out, went right to a Waffle House. And I sat down.

And I realized if I didn't really want to take this LSAT, I probably shouldn't be a lawyer. It's going to cost a lot. It was going to take a lot of time. And I had that Waffle House epiphany. And I decided I was going to have to be an entrepreneur because I have to make up a career for myself.

And I convinced my roommate to start a company with me. That company ended up being Reddit. And we took $12,000 in pre-seed funding. And the rest is history. I was able to get the chance to come back to Reddit about four years ago, take the company independent, helped lead the turnaround.

And then at the start of last year, I went back to a board position at Reddit in order to go back to my venture capital firm, Initialized Capital, with my partner, Gary, and try to be the early-stage investors we wish we had had when we were starting out. Instead of shepherding one billion-dollar company, our hopes are to help start dozens of them and to try to scale all of that experience to many more entrepreneurs to try to find the next Reddit or hopefully even better.

ANDY SERWER: I want to talk about your VC work a little bit, but a little bit more about Reddit. So did you ever anticipate that it would become what it is today? Maybe let me also ask you, Alexis, what is Reddit? I mean, what do you think Reddit is today?

ALEXIS OHANIAN: It is a network of communities-- tens of thousands of them-- for people to discuss whatever is most important and vote up the best stuff and vote down the stuff that folks don't like. And you know, did we expect it? Did I expect it?

On some level, every entrepreneur has to delude themselves into thinking that it can be a huge success. That's what gets you out of bed in the morning. But you have to be grounded in the realities of the day to day, of the week to week. So abstractly, yes. I'd be lying if I said I didn't think on some level it would be this big.

But concretely, no. No way in hell. We had no idea. Our ambitions were much more, like I said, day to day, week to week, month to month. Let's just not screw this up. And it would be-- it'd be absurd to say that we had this all planned out for it.

But look, I'm proud of the fact that, I mean, hundreds of millions of people use Reddit every month. And there's still a lot more work to be done, a lot more work to grow the business, to grow the site. But it's come a long way from that $12,000 check.

ANDY SERWER: So how do you balance out-- what's your thinking about balancing out freedom of speech between protecting people in our society? It's such a huge thing not just for Reddit, but obviously for Facebook, for Twitter, all across social media.

ALEXIS OHANIAN: One of the biggest advantages to leaving Reddit and then coming back was just a benefit of perspective and watching actually how our peers struggled with a lot of these issues. And so it was really clear by the time I came back that the policy around Reddit content, harassment, all these things needed to be drastically overhauled. And I'm really proud, actually, of all the progress that has been made since.

I think there is, on any platform, always going to have to be guardrails around what content is tolerated. That has always been the case. It was when we started Reddit. And it was as soon as I came back.

And so what we need to get right, I think, broadly sort of as a society now is what we want to do about how we engage with one another every single day on these platforms. And part of this is around media literacy. Part of this is around just encouraging more of these norms because we do want everyone to feel free of harassment on social media. And I think getting there is going to be the challenge.

And one of the clear trends that I've seen is we've reached the kind of peak social media where I think platforms that are built around following individual persons sort of have reached their saturation point. And we're seeing more and more people retreat back to smaller communities or groups, whether it's your-- whether it's a group chat of all your college friends or whether it's going to communities.

There's one that we backed from Initialize called Girl Boss, which is specifically for a community of young professional mostly women and their allies who want to come to talk about all things related to basically being girl bosses in their professional lives, whether they're entrepreneurs or they're just employees looking to get ahead. And they're coming to these platforms because they want to find the camaraderie.

They want to find the comfort. They want to find the freedom to be able to talk about what's on their mind. And they're looking for like-minded individuals. And I think this is the growing trend. We're going to see more and more social platforms emerge that are built around these communities of interest as opposed to following individuals because that part has sort of run its course.

ANDY SERWER: It's always evolving in ways that we don't anticipate. Maybe some people can see around corners do. But does this whole arena, Alexis, needs to be regulated? That's a huge question right now-- or more regulated.

ALEXIS OHANIAN: Social media in particular?


ALEXIS OHANIAN: I am generally very nervous around that specifically because it will depend heavily on who is in power who does the regulation. And so for people who would be for that today, I would caution them that if you set that standard, you're also now allowing the next people in charge to do the same thing.

And so I think one of the great principles of this country is this idea that we are constantly evolving. We're constantly learning as we go. And so when it comes to defining boundaries around speech, it is really important that as a government, we take into consideration the fact that if we set a standard of rules, the people in power today will get to set them. But the people in power tomorrow will get to change them.

And so I generally would believe that those guidelines and those standards should continue to be enforced that exist today. And to try to write new ones gets dangerous. I think there are clear-cut examples where-- for instance, revenge porn is one-- where it is a cut-and-dry violation not just of someone's privacy, but a clear-cut violation that all of the social platforms-- Reddit and all the others-- were pretty straightforward about taking a stand upon.

I was really proud that we got that done as one of, actually, I think, one of the first acts upon coming back. Every other social media platform followed suit. And we're at different states. I know we're at different stages of creating rules and laws around it. The platforms themselves were challenged to do something about it. And they actually did.

And so I think we are going to see new things evolve that are clear cut in the way that revenge porn is, where I think we can get the platforms to enforce clear policy. I think you can potentially get laws in place to punish the people who do it. I think in a lot of cases, there are laws already on the books that just need to be enforced to punish the people who do it who deserve it.

But starting to go-- I think as an open-ended answer, I would want us to be thinking really thoughtfully about how we're doing that. And again, keep in mind that the standards that are set today are not necessarily going to be the standards that another administration or that another government would want.

ANDY SERWER: And finally, about Reddit, is the company looking to go public soon? And do you still own a stake?

ALEXIS OHANIAN: Well, yeah. As part of taking the company independent and my return, I mean, I was compensated with equity for it. You probably saw the fundraising news recently.

You know, today I can only speak in the capacity as a board member. But our focus right now, especially now that there is this war chest-- I mean, we weren't even trying to fundraise in this latest round. The priority right now is just on growing the company, really continuing to improve the product, continuing to evolve the business.

ANDY SERWER: Monetization?

ALEXIS OHANIAN: That's a part of it. I think long term, what excites me is all of the digital goods that now exist in Americans' lives. You may have seen the headline about "Fortnite" selling tens of millions of dollars of digital goods during a concert in "Fortnite," which may seem weird to a generation. But it is very real revenue.

And I think platforms like Reddit that are so community based have an unfair advantage in trying to do digital goods because there are so many bonds already being created there that if you can introduce a way for the company to make money that also makes users feel good, it's generally a very virtuous cycle. And so I think things like that are part of the long-term future of Reddit's revenue.

Obviously today, the majority of it is advertising. But I think long term, that really, really clever kind of win-win revenue goals around things like digital goods or are the future is headed. So no plans for going public anytime soon. I mean, it's focus on the business and the product for now.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, it sounds like it could be an interesting different kind of business model. You mentioned Initialized Capital. What are you specifically interested in there? And what is its focus?

ALEXIS OHANIAN: We are going to be the first investors. We want to be the believers. And the founder-- when she's just got a prototype, the earliest stages, we don't-- we're able to get the high conviction. We don't really care what other folks think.

And we want to be able to identify businesses that are highly scalable, almost always with software-- not always, but nearly always with software-- and that are entering markets where we see a huge unfair advantage because of that software. And I've been talking recently a lot about elder tech as one that I just continue to see more and more evidence of growth there, estimated around 10,000 boomers retiring every day now in the United States.

ANDY SERWER: Elder tech?

ALEXIS OHANIAN: Yeah. And I've tried to coin that. I'm trying to make fetch happen here with #ElderTech. But one of the reasons-- so people ask, you know, how do we-- we've now invested in, I think, six-- we've been the first investors in now, I think, six billion-dollar companies. And people are looking for a crystal ball.

The reality is there's no crystal ball. But we spend enough time with these early-stage founders that they tell us what the future is going to be. And then we can kind of look back and then look forward based on that.

And so we've got companies like Voyage, which does autonomous vehicles. It's an autonomous taxi service built for retirement communities, where it's actually a feature that these communities have like 25 to 30 mile an hour speed limits on the cars, which is great, and where you're providing mobility to seniors who otherwise are partially impaired vision-wise who probably shouldn't be driving and now are getting enhanced safety, as well as convenience.

We're seeing products like True Link Financial, which provides banking services specifically for the elderly and their children to make sure that they're not suckered in by frauds or scams. And they're using clever things like AI to make sure that you're not just giving your dad or your grandparent a credit card. You're giving them a card that's going to actively protect them from fraudsters and from nefarious activity.

And so we're seeing all this infrastructure being built now by millennials for boomers, who are a growing and growing portion of the population, who have the dollars to spend, and who are now tech literate enough. I like to say they all pass the Instagram test. So because of their kids and their grandkids, they're now on Instagram. And by that, they now all use world-class software.

And that's-- I mean, Instagram is world-class software. Even though it's for something very trivial, like seeing baby photos, it flips a perception of what they expect in software. And so we're going to see more and more products that are of this caliber that are high quality, whether developed in Silicon Valley or elsewhere, that are serving these needs. And I'm excited by it because this is a massive, very underserved market. And it's going to make lives a lot better, too.

ANDY SERWER: That's a cool idea because, you know, of course, when you think about technology, we think about it's millennials for millennials. But this is for another market that could be addressed.

ALEXIS OHANIAN: Yeah. And it is a nice narrative. I think there's-- everyone's always looking for a chance to write the headline about boomers v. millennials. But the reality is I think there's far more that can be done together than otherwise. There's another one, actually, in my home state of Florida called Papa. And they basically offer grandkids on demand. Now, hear me out.


ALEXIS OHANIAN: So what Papa does is they've identified loneliness as a significant epidemic, especially among seniors. It has real health consequences that are starting to get more studied now. And especially in a state like Florida, which has a disproportionate number of retirement communities and what not, the reality is, even in a world of growing automation, there are still jobs and responsibilities that humans are always going to be uniquely good at because we possess empathy.

Because having a college kid-- they call them Papa Pals-- spend time with senior citizens, doing everything from like helping them run errands to like helping them fix Netflix, is actually an inefficient market that has real supply and real demand. And so now these college kids, who maybe otherwise-- I mean, I worked in a parking booth. I did restaurant work. I was a FedEx box mover.

These jobs I had in college admittedly were fulfilling because they gave me money to spend on, you know, backpacking trips. But none of those jobs were particularly unique to my humanity, right? And these are largely the jobs that are getting automated now. But this is the kind of job that I would have had in college because the same skills that made me a great waiter would have also made me a really great Papa Pal.

And it would have been the exact kind of job that I don't believe a robot's ever going to do. And it's the kind of thing that we're seeing now as part of this new economy where we're finding new areas of work, even this kind of sort of temporary work, that can be created, that provides real money, and actually is really fulfilling, is actually a really fun, delightful way to get paid for your time. And it's providing a real service that's having a real positive impact.

ANDY SERWER: That's crazy. And you know, I think there's some businesses in Japan where they have whole families like that. But that's a whole other thing. So let me shift gears here a little bit and ask you about cryptocurrency because I know you've been a big believer.

ALEXIS OHANIAN: Sure. Oh, yeah.

ANDY SERWER: Are you still a big believer? I mean, come on. Look what's happened here.

ALEXIS OHANIAN: So this is the crypto winter, no doubt. But a friend of mine, Brian Armstrong, who's the CEO of Coinbase, said this is the spring of crypto innovation. And what he means is, yes, the prices are depressed. The speculators have fled. And that's great because the people who are now building on crypto are true believers. And they're actually builders. They're actually building the infrastructure that it's going to take to really make this happen.

Now, it's still to be seen. But what's a strong signal to me is still some of the smartest people I know in tech are working on solving these problems. They're building companies that are built on blockchain. The hype is gone. The fervor is gone. But I think that's a good thing.

And for all of us who have been in this since-- I mean, we were the seed investors in Coinbase back in 2011, I think, back when it was a sort of pipe dream of really only devoted engineers. We've been in this for a minute now. And so we're very comfortable having a long worldview on it because this kind of an infrastructure shift will take lots of time. And we knew that going into it. And then I think we still see people-- like I think most recently Jamie Dimon is now investing in it.

ANDY SERWER: JP Morgan has a product-- a crypto product [INAUDIBLE].

ALEXIS OHANIAN: And this was just a few years after him calling it a total scam, I think was the quote. I forget. Don't quote me. I mean, you'll find the actual quote. But I think these are just more indications that there is real innovation that is happening now that all the wild speculation is gone. And I think that's actually a good thing.

It's a painful thing, I think, for a lot of people to see those accounts. But if you were investing in it in the first place, you really should have been thinking long term. I think that's just generally good advice for any kind of investing, but especially something so nascent as crypto.

ANDY SERWER: Another thing you're interested in is paid family leave, particularly paternity leave.


ANDY SERWER: How did you get interested in that? What sparked you there?

ALEXIS OHANIAN: You know, I became a dad. I was aware of it. I remember when I came back to Reddit there was not even an HR person, let alone department. And we hired this amazing woman, Katelin Holloway, who's our VP of people and culture. She put together a plan for the benefits package.

And I remember going through, checking all the boxes, being like, that sounds good. And she presented everything. And I was like, oh, this all sounds good. And somewhere in there was the 16 weeks of paid family leave. So whether you adopted a child, had a child, man or woman, doesn't matter, you got time that you could spend flexibly with your family. I thought, that seems reasonable. It's the right thing to do. But I didn't think much of it.

Then I found out a few years later that I was going to be a dad. So I went back to Katelin. I said, Katelin, I want to go through-- I want to use our paid leave plan just like any other employee. Let's walk me through it. And I walked through the experience.

And at some point, I must have asked, so what is standard in the United States? Because this feels pretty great. And then she explained to me how shockingly low it is. And America is the last industrialized nation to not have a paid family leave program at the federal level-- a mandatory.

And then going through what my wife and I went through during the childbirth and then immediately afterwards and how difficult that was really, really hit home how important this issue was because we had every advantage imaginable. And it was still a really difficult experience. And I could not imagine going through all of that without knowing I was going to have a job or without knowing I could have time to be with my family to support them fully mentally, physically, emotionally, financially.

And that was when it really clicked. And it started becoming an issue. And I started speaking out about it. And then at the start of this year, Dove Men+Care reached out and said, hey, we want to do something about this. And you know, I checked the receipts. They have long supported and advocated for all things dads, dad things, and really embraced that as a part of masculinity, which is awesome.

And they said, we want to put a million-dollar fund together. And this is specifically a paternal leave fund so that fathers who were eligible, either knew or expecting, could apply to get a $5,000 grant because their companies don't offer it. But Dove Men+Care and I said this is something that should exist in the world.

And it's a step in the right direction. It's still just a Band-Aid. But it's a step in the right direction. And I think combined with the pledge, we will see more and more fathers and their allies and bosses saying that this is something that we need. And I'm excited because of all the things to be advocating for, getting some extra time that you'll never get back with your newborn and your partner-- not a hard sell. Not a hard sell.

Even at 3:00 AM when you can't figure out while she's still crying, and you've sung "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" so many times to her that the words have lost all meaning, that is still an amazing moment. Because as awful as you feel and sleep deprived as you might feel, the moment the next day or the day after when you get that little recognition of that smile or that laughter, you're like, I did that.

I was a part of this not just nine months ago when it was a lot of fun. But right now in the moment, this was all worth it. And this is why I'm doing this. And this is why I go to work, right? I'm going to work to put food on the table for my family. And even those which are the sort of most kind of traditional basic values and ideas around family-- those hit home.

And then when you can add onto that the fact that you can be there not just with a check and not just with dollars, but there with time, those are the things that the little ones are going to remember when they're older. And I think those are the things for a generation of fathers in particular we are going to be most proud of.

And I'm excited because it's one of the few bipartisan things I think we could be offering right now in this country at a time when it is so divisive. This is something I've had Republicans champion. This is something I've had Democrats champion. And that's an exciting thing to be behind.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, I mean, it's great that you and Dove Men+Care are doing this. But that's what I was going to ask you. Is there any chance that we're going to get legislation signed by President Trump within the next year or two?

ALEXIS OHANIAN: I don't want to put a timeline on it. But look, I'm putting on a suit and going down to DC before the end of the year. We've seen-- even at the most recent state of the union, President Trump brought it up. Ivanka has been outspoken about it. And we've had Republicans and Democrats on both sides of Congress speaking out about it and even putting bills forward.

So I'm optimistic. These things all take time. But like I said, it is something I think this country needs, especially now more than ever at a time when we are so at odds with one another.

ANDY SERWER: Right. You mentioned your wife, Serena Williams.


ANDY SERWER: So you two are probably one of the most famous interracial couples in the United States. What is it like in America today to be in that situation? I mean, are there a lot of divisive comments? Do you sort of skate above that because you're both wealthy and prominent people? What's your take?

ALEXIS OHANIAN: I mean, no one's ever said anything to my face. It's probably because I'm a very big man. And they're too scared to. But look, I would be foolish to say that it does not play a role in our marriage and in our lives.

And I think one of the greatest advantages I've had, aside from already being a white dude with a couple of loving parents, was growing up experiencing a pretty broad range of this country and this world, whether it was the kids I played sports with in high school, whether it was college, whether it was traveling, whether it was everything. I feel like the best moments of growth that I've had have come from moments of a little bit of pain.

There's a great saying. It's a Schwarzenegger quote. I think it's his. But it's, pain is growth. And what he's referring to is like, you know, if you're pushing yourself, you're pushing a new weight, especially when you go deep in the reps, it's going to start hurting. You're going to feel a burning.

And that burning sensation is something to embrace because that is where growth happens. That's literally where your muscles are tearing. And you're getting stronger. And I apply that to these conversations.

And so getting back to your question, I think by getting exposed to people with different perspectives and different backgrounds and different races and different religions and all these other different things that exist in our world, there are moments where I have absolutely put my foot in my mouth. There are moments when I've absolutely misstepped or misunderstood.

And those are painful moments because we all like to think of ourselves as good people. And it doesn't mean that we're not good people, per se. It's those moments that I feel like are opportunities for growth because we get a different perspective and a different understanding and start to understand our fellow humans a little better. And so I know that it has been a great advantage every time I have gotten exposure to things that made me a little uncomfortable or a little different because it's helped me grow as a person.

And so, yeah, I'm in an interracial marriage. I have a daughter who is black who is going to have a different experience than either her mother or I had because she's mixed race. But we're going to be the best parents we can try to be. And I think that is also part of the magic and part of the promise of this country-- is that we will continue to trend, I hope, in a direction where we embrace the differences and we embrace opportunities to learn from one another and understand that it's our differences that actually make us better and make us stronger.

Pain is growth. Just like pushing those extra weights in the gym, right, those are opportunities to be learning when we're wrong, to be learning from those mistakes, and actually growing, I hope, and getting better and getting more tolerant and getting more understanding and getting more empathetic. So yeah.

ANDY SERWER: That's a positive response. So let me just-- I have to ask you just one or two more questions about you and Serena. So what's it like watching her play? And then what do you guys like to talk about, hang out, and do together?

ALEXIS OHANIAN: I never really liked tennis as a sport. I like it now. It's my favorite sport. It's amazing. I mean, what's it like watching the greatest to ever play it? I mean, it's a privilege. And it's a lot of fun.

And it's hard emotionally to separate myself from it because I really get into it. But it's truly awesome when we talk about-- when we talk about stuff that married couples talk about. So it's pretty run-of-the-mill, boring stuff most of the time.

ANDY SERWER: All right. Let me ask you just a final question or two, another political one maybe. Do you have anyone that you're interested in who is running for president already or maybe hasn't declared yet?

ALEXIS OHANIAN: Oh, I was going to come on here and declare, actually, that I was running.

ANDY SERWER: I mean, that would be great. Go right for it. Go ahead.

ALEXIS OHANIAN: No. I don't know. I think Bernie just announced today. Is that what happened?

ANDY SERWER: Yeah. Bern is back.

ALEXIS OHANIAN: Going to be a lot of democratic candidates. I think I am going to be interested in-- I'm going to be interested in seeing solutions-oriented candidates who are going to be able to move forward on a lot of these issues that I feel like we've been stuck on. I feel like there's a big disconnect right now between the American public and a lot of the folks who hold office.

And I don't know. I've been most intrigued by the fact that the congresswoman from Hawaii, Tulsi Gabbard, has been all but overlooked by most of media. And if I have any lessons learned from watching social, particularly Reddit, but watching social during Trump's rise, during Obama's rise, it's that there are a lot of these bellwethers that you see, a lot of these signals you see online that bubble up from the people before the mainstream folks get a wind.

And that's an interesting one to me because I see a big disconnect between how much she's talked about and how positively she's talked about places on social versus mainstream. So I'm intrigued. I'm very intrigued. And also, I think she'd be the first-- she is the first millennial presidential candidate, I think just on the cusp. So at the very least, I got to keep an eye out for the first millennial presidential candidate. So we'll see where this all goes.

ANDY SERWER: All right we're going to keep our eye on her too, then. Alexis Ohanian, thank you so much for joining us today.


ANDY SERWER: You've been watching "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. We'll see you next time. That's it.


ANDY SERWER: Thank you very much it. That's awesome.

ALEXIS OHANIAN: My pleasure.

ANDY SERWER: Thank you very much.